Strange But True Facts About Ben Hogan, Merion, and the 1950 U.S. Open

Here are some surprises and interesting tidbits I turned up along the way in researching my book Miracle at Merion about Ben Hogan’s victory at the 1950 U.S. Open, published by Skyhorse Publishing. (And here are Part 1 and Part 2 of my look at the truth behind some of the myths of that tournament.)

Hogan and the celebs
How do you think Ben Hogan spent the weekend before the 1950 U.S. Open? I’ll bet “playing in a celebrity tournament” didn’t come to mind, but that’s exactly what he did. Hogan was one of 11 men pros and 10 women pros to play in the National Celebrities Golf Tournament in Washington, D.C. on the Saturday and Sunday before heading back up to Philadelphia for the Open at Merion.

Participants in the benefit tournament included Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Milton Berle, Frank Sinatra (only as a walking scorer), and Jim Thorpe. There were various senators, congressmen, and military leaders in the field, too. On the first tee, Hogan received a citation from Attorney General Harold J. McGrath for having completed “the most courageous comeback in sports” during the past year when he returned to the PGA tour after missing 11 months due to injuries suffered in a car-bus crash.

For what it’s worth, Hogan was low pro in the celebrities event. Perhaps more importantly, columnist Shirley Povich pointed out a week later in the Washington Post, Hogan was actually smiling on the first tee and even manning the loudspeaker at one point. “It’s loosening him up,” a friend said at the time, “and I hope he keeps the mood next week at the Open.”

Regarding his U.S. Open preparation, Hogan did play Merion for several days in the week before the Open before making the trip to Washington. But during tournament week he did not play at all Monday, played 18 holes on Tuesday, and only five holes on Wednesday leading into the tournament—probably a wise move since a 36-hole final day awaited him on Saturday.

Hogan’s eagle eyes
On the Friday before the U.S. Open, a reporter overheard a conversation between Hogan and Merion club president Arthur E. Billings. Hogan praised the course, but said, “I don’t think it plays as long as the yardage on the scorecard.”

There were no yardage books in those days, nor did players and caddies even pace the yardage. They relied on their eyes to judge the distance of shots and choose a club. Hogan was renowned as an especially good judge of distance, and in this case he was spot on: When Merion remeasured the course about a decade later, it was found to be nearly 200 yards shorter than the scorecard yardage.

Hogan the scrambler
Time has burnished Hogan’s legend to the point where you would think that he never missed a shot. Not true. In fact, he sprayed the ball all over Merion’s East Course in the third round, visiting the rough seven times and bunkers three times. He even hit a tee shot out of bounds on the 15th hole. He stayed in contention only thanks to some very good scrambling, which enabled him to escape with a 72.

This came in the first part of a 36-hole final day of regulation, so it is impressive that Hogan gathered himself and hit the ball much better in the afternoon round, even as the condition of his legs deteriorated (he had poor blood circulation after a post-crash operation). Still, he got favorable bounces off of gallery members on two errant approach shots during the final round, on the 11th and 16th holes. The next day in winning the playoff Hogan did play like the relentless fairways-and-greens machine of legend.

There were no grandstands at Merion in 1950, as Hy Peskin’s famous photo of Ben Hogan’s approach shot to the 72nd green shows. However, there were grandstands a year earlier on the 18th hole at Medinah, which was the first time they were used for the Open. They interfered with play more than was expected, and the USGA wasn’t happy. “It is doubtful that stands ever will be permitted again,” wrote Rules of Golf Committee chairman Isaac Grainger in USGA Journal, in a gross underestimation the growth of the tournament.

It turned out the problem really was with Medinah, where there wasn’t much room around the 18th green. When the Open returned there in 1975, there was again a problem with the grandstands interfering. In fact, that’s one reason the USGA required Medinah to redesign the 18th hole, repositioning the green, before it was awarded another U.S. Open.

A tradition ignored
Merion Golf Club distinctively uses wicker baskets instead of flags on its flagsticks (properly called “standards” since there is no flag). But the 1950 U.S. Open was the only one of 18 USGA championships contested at Merion when the USGA required the club to use flags instead. In a memo, chairman of the USGA championship committee Richard Tufts wrote, “Simply because they are different I think there will be some criticism if the baskets are used.” There also was some apparent concern because a contestant in the 1949 U.S. Women’s Amateur got a bad break after her ball ricocheted off a basket.

The Tufts bunkers
The USGA’s Tufts suggested that a couple of bunkers be installed to the right of the 10th fairway to catch errant shots, and also to prevent balls from rolling onto the 11th tee. The new bunkers played a role in the championship when Hogan and another contender, Cary Middlecoff, playing together, both hit into one of them during the final round. Hogan escaped with a par, but Middlecoff’s shot hit the lip and stayed in the bunker, leading to a double bogey. Those bunkers aren’t there today. The club took them out when it restored the course to the way it was in 1930 when Bobby Jones completed the Grand Slam.

George Fazio’s bid
George Fazio stormed in with a 1-under 33 on the back nine of the final round on a day when scores were high, coming from nowhere to end up in a playoff. But he could have won outright if he had been able to capitalize on an extraordinary shot on the 16th hole. Facing a shot of 170 yards over a forbidding old quarry with his ball in a divot hole just off the fairway, he normally would have laid up. Not knowing where he stood, but figuring that he needed a birdie to have any chance, he hit an “all or nothing” four-iron that not only cleared the quarry but finished four feet from the hole. Alas, he missed the putt.

Lloyd Mangrum’s other gaffe
It has become part of golf lore that Mangrum incurred a two-stroke penalty in the playoff when he picked up his ball on the 16th green to blow off a bug, dropping him from one behind to three behind. But that wasn’t his only lapse on the back nine of the playoff. On the 12th hole, he somehow contrived to hit his approach shot to the par four some 30 yards over the green and out of bounds. The New York Times report says that Mangrum hit a five-iron “too strongly as the breeze faded and the ball flew over the crowd.”

It’s hard to see how a fading breeze could lead to a pro hitting a shot not just over the green, but over the heads of the gallery behind the green. Reports don’t indicate that the wind was even that strong that day. The USGA’s Grainger in a conversation with Merion historian John Capers a number of years later offered an explanation that seems crazy yet fits the facts of an approach shot flying so far. He said that Mangrum asked for a nine-iron but his caddie gave him a six-iron instead.

Grainger ruled that the ball was out of bounds because it crossed the road beyond the 12th green, even though it was on the golf course near the 13th tee. This Open was played during a four-year period when the penalty for out of bounds was distance only instead of stroke and distance. Mangrum dropped a ball in the fairway, hit the right club this time, and ended up with a bogey. The reporters didn’t ask Mangrum about it after the round, as their questions centered on the 16th-hole penalty. But Mangrum actually threw away his chances in the playoff with two colossal blunders in the last seven holes.

No relief
Skip Alexander shot a 68 in the first round, but was involved in an interesting situation when his approach shot to the 18th went long and left. It bounded down near the starter’s tent next to the first tee and ended up on a paved path and against some radio cables near the clubhouse. Alexander was allowed to move the cables away from his ball, but he did not get relief from being on a path. Golf carts were still a few years in the future at that point, so there was as yet no provision in the rules for relief from a paved path. He had to play it from the pavement, hitting a shot over a bunker to the green and somehow hitting it to within 12 feet of the hole.

Short-range misses
Reading accounts from this championship, and from other tournaments of the time, it’s striking how many two- and three-foot putts were missed (Middlecoff even missed from eight inches during the first round). I also noticed a number of instances where putts in the six-foot range were left short. That would never happen today. The prevailing method then was apparently to try to die the ball into the hole; by contrast, today’s pros hit short putts firmly to take some of the break out while also assuring that they don’t leave the putt short or have it knocked off line by a small imperfection of the green. Merion’s greens were much faster than those at most courses of the day, which must have led to a lot of tentative efforts.

Sad stories
A man named Bernie Hren of Tacoma, Washington, got into the field late as an alternate, flying across the country on Wednesday at a time when air travel was not as fast as it is today. He shot an 88 in the first round and withdrew, flying back to Tacoma without playing the second round. Jack Stewart was an auto dealer from Phoenix whose employees had recently given him a gift of a new set of golf clubs. He used them at Merion, and shot a horrid 96 in the first round, the second highest score in a U.S. Open since 1910.

A more prominent player with a different kind of sad story was Porky Oliver, whose bad luck at the U.S. Open started in 1941 when he would have been in a playoff but was disqualified for starting his final round too early. He failed in sectional qualifying in 1950, and was the biggest name missing from the Open field. In fact, it was the second year in a row that he failed to qualify. What I found interesting was that in 1949 at Medinah, he went to the site as an alternate and shot a course record in a practice round—and pleaded with officials (to no avail) that they should let him into the tournament because of it!

Hogan’s doctor delayed by Mardi Gras
When Hogan developed a blood clot in his leg a couple of weeks after the crash, doctors at his El Paso hospital determined that he might need a rare kind of vascular surgery to tie off a major vein and prevent a large clot from reaching his lung. Not many doctors in the country did this surgery, and it was decided that Dr. Alton Ochsner of New Orleans would be called to perform it if necessary. Two weeks after that, another clot formed, Hogan’s condition worsened, and an urgent call went out to Dr. Ochsner.

But the doctor wasn’t able to get a flight out. Some accounts say it was due to a storm, but Ben’s wife Valerie in an essay written with Dave Anderson for the book Ben Hogan: The Man Behind the Mystique, said that it was due to Mardi Gras. Indeed, records show that the Mardi Gras ended the day before, which might have led to all flights being booked.

Desperate, either Valerie or Ben’s brother Royal (accounts differ) arranged with an Air Force general to have a military plane fly to New Orleans and pick the doctor up. After spending the day trying to get on a flight, and then up all night waiting for the military plane, Ochsner arrived at the hospital at noon the next day. Telling Valerie that he was in no condition to operate, he took a nap before performing the surgery at 6:30 in the evening.

Fortunately, the worrisome clot had broken up before reaching a lung—and Ochsner’s successful surgery prevented future clots from presenting a danger.

Highway gone, hotel restored
The spot on the highway where Hogan’s accident occurred is gone now—that part of U.S. Highway 80 in West Texas has been replaced by Interstate 10. But the El Capitan, the hotel in the small town of Van Horn, Texas, where the Hogans spent the previous night, was recently restored. The hotel opened in 1930 mostly as a place for cattlemen to make deals, but also as a place to spend the night for highway and rail travelers passing through desolate West Texas. It was a favorite stop of Ben and Valerie on the way back to Fort Worth from California or Arizona. The El Capitan closed in the 1970s and the building was used as a bank, but it reopened as a hotel in 2009.

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